The rosy picture of the traditional tolerance and just treatment of Jews under Islamic rule has been largely demolished by the testimony of Jewish refugees from Arab countries interviewed for this book in Israel, France, England and the United States.
Some, who fled at the time of the mass exodus around 1948, described Jewish life in Arab lands before Israel’s statehood. Other Jews, who remained in their birthplaces after Israel’s modern re-creation and the war waged against it by the surrounding Arab countries, told of experiences in which their existence as “dhimmis” was compounded by their persecution as Zionists and branded as an enemy fifth column, until they escaped or were expelled.
The recollections verify the historical evidence that the Arab world was united, not only against Zionism, but against any Jew, and perhaps any non-Muslim.
The personal experiences selected here from the more than a hundred interviews conducted over the past several years, were representative of the experiences that were recounted time after time. Following are some typical stories as told first hand by the actual participants.
Though a few of the Arab Jews interviewed might wish to visit—if they could—their birthplaces for nostalgia’s sake, none would want to return to them. Invitation declined*!
* This is an allusion to Chapter 2, “The Invitation”, when in the early 70s several Arab States cynically invited “their” Jews—except, of course “Zionist” ones—to resettle in their respective birthplaces. The scheme was probably mostly a P.R. effort to create a narrative that Jews created Arab hate de novo by supporting Zionism. The Arab states were at the time creating a powerful offensive to diplomatically harm Israel, which proved much more effective than any of their military ones. [Editor]
Rafi, an Iraq-born Jew, was anxious to tear away the myth that Arab hostility toward Jews began in 1948. He recalled bitterly his childhood in Baghdad before his family escaped to Israel in the early thirties.
Born in 1923 he was the last of eleven children. Things changed dramatically for the Jews after the mandate was over and power was turned over to the Iraqis.
Whenever there has been any problem in Palestine, there was always some riot in Baghdad against the Jews. The Jewish community in Iraq was more prosperous and better educated than the average population.
Many of the Arab leaders at that time were sent to Jewish schools, the only schooling system available. Still, whenever anything happened, the Jews were blamed and victimized.
Another thing that made it even worse for the Jews in Arab lands was the rise of Hitler. Arab countries identified strongly with the Nazi ideology power and patriotism.
The first thing the Iraqis did when they got their independence is was a mass progrom against a Christian community. The hostility of the Arab world toward all minorities was immediately evident.
When the war started in 1948, escaping to Israel was impossible, so many Jews ran to Persia, a Muslim, but not Arab country, which was more at that time tolerant to the Jews. The UN pressured Iraq to let the Jews leave, but all their property was confiscated without compensation of any kind.
Rafi stated that it was stupid to allow the myth to persist that the Jews had been loved in the Arab countries before the rise of the Jewish state in 1948.
Shaul, who escaped from Iraq to Israel, recalled his childhood, long before 1948. From the age of three or four, he was aware of the hatred of Muslims for Jews.
From age 12, Shaul had to attend Muslim schools, because his family could not afford Jewish schools, where he was regularly beaten by other students and some teachers were also very mean to the Jewish students.
He described an incident, where he and several of his Jewish friends were ambushed by hundreds of hateful Arabs and beaten.
The Jews of Iraq dreamt of escaping to Israel, but there was no state at the time. The minute Israel declared independence and established a government, suddenly a hundred thousand Jews left Iraq.
The regime in Iraq has always practised the most severe persecutions of Jews.
Menachem, grandson of the chief rabbi of Baghdad, recounted how his cousin was hanged along with eight others in Baghdad by the Ba’ath Party that wanted to show its strength. Their bodies were displayed for four days.
His escape to Iran in 1950 was fraught with mortal danger.
Shimon, another Baghadi Jew, remember that of his family was fearful and the feeling of being different.
In 1941, because the prime minister was close to the Nazis, there were pogroms. The Arabs closed the Jewish ghetto and killed one hundred and eighty Jews after taking all their possessions. Shimon and his family escaped by moving along rooftops.
Later on, when the Zionist movement became stronger, conditions became even more difficult. In 1949 searches began in homes. After hours of searching, they took away heads of families, some of whom never returned.
He escaped Iraq in 1950.
Yaacov and Shlomo
The late President Sadat’s assertion of Egypt’s historically fair treatment of its Jews was rebutted by two Egyptian men, now living in Israel.
Yaacov spoke first. For school children, “…it was part of everyday life to be beaten for being a Jew”. The Jew was the bright fellow, but his life was never sure. At any time someone could kill him without receiving punishment as harsh as if he killed someone from his own community.
Shlomo insisted that the foreign colonial powers in Egypt didn’t protect the Jews from demeaning treatment. He compared the status of being a Jew in Egypt to being a low-caste Indian in India. He put to the lie the myth that the Jews were not treated as badly in Arab countries as they were in Europe; Arabs never killed six million Jews because they never had the chance.
Sarah left Egypt after the 1967 war. She told of her family’s flight to Israel after her husband’s and brother’s arrest and imprisonment in a concentration camp where Jewish men from sixteen to seventy years were taken at the start of the war. After pressure by the French embassy the men were released and the family was allowed to leave Egypt with five dollars each and the condition that they would never return.
After the way they treated her husband and brother, she could never trust the Arab people and would never go back to Egypt.
Mordecai gave an account similar to others from Libya about the plight of the Jews there.
In 1945 the Jews were victims of a terrible progrom. Around one hundred and fifty Jews were killed in Tripoli, where whole families were brutally massacred. Not one perpetrator was punished by the British, but ten Jews went to jail for defending themselves.
After Libya became an independent country in 1951, they closed all the Jewish schools and Jewish kids had to go to Arab or Christian schools where they had to learn Arabic for two hours daily.
Jews were unable to conduct holiday services without vandalism and disruption by the Arabs and received no protection from the police.
From 1956 no one could leave the country with his whole family, and after a while no visas were available at all.
Many Jewish girls were the victims of Arab lust and after the Six Day War, synagogues were burned and Jews were killed wantonly, thrown from balconies into the street.
After the massacre, the remaining Jews were taken to military camps, supposedly to protect them from the anger of the Arabs. Finally, Mordecai was “allowed” out of Libya forever with only 50 pounds sterling and his clothes.
Helena from Morocco recalled the anxieties of her life in Marrakesh. The Arabs reminded Jews that they were “foreigners”, no matter how many centuries they have been in Marrakesh. Since Jews were treated as foreigners, they would never be accepted as part of that society.
Ms. Peters heard conflicting opinions from Jewish Moroccans about the conditions of life for Jews there. Some insisted that Morocco was better to the Jews than most. Tunisian-born writer Albert Memmi suggested, life for Jews in Morocco appeared “better”, only because it compared favourably to that of Jews who had lived elsewhere among the Arabs. She remarked ironically that, by their treatment of Jews the Arabs unknowingly promoted Zionism.
Shoshana still feels guilty because she left the rest of her family in Syria and escaped to Israel in 1974.
Ever since Shosana was a child, she was living in constant fear. Some of her neighbours were Palestinians and other Arabs, who were calling her “Jew” and beat her.
The fear that Jews felt in Syria was that any time of day or night the security people might knock at the door and take either the father or one of the elder brothers for reasons unknown to them.
The TV reports on “60 minutes” tried to show that Jews were well treated in Syria, but the families interviewed on TV had to say that, because they had no choice, as the security people who were also present would make life miserable for them after the show if they went off-script.
Shoshana was imprisoned because she participated in a demonstration protesting the murder of two girls from her family, who tried to escape through the border. The bodies were burned beyond recognition and dumped in sacs on the doorsteps of their family. At one point during the interview could not continue the narrative and the Hebrew translator had to comfort her; he said that she was ashamed to tell what happened to her in prison.
Before the murders many of Shosana’s friends planned to escape, but after this incident, they were scared to death, so they sat at home in the dark and felt that their lot was worse than that of animals.
Joseph escaped from Syria in 1975 at age twenty two.
After ’67, thousands of PLO members were forced to live with the Jews in the ghetto. Eight Jews were killed by Palestinians two months after the war.
His father was arrested three times for “making Jewish religious objects” and once disappeared for four days. His father was fairly well off before 1970, when tourists were not allowed to see the Jews in Damascus, because the Jews may disclose their shabby treatment by Syria.
Nobody was allowed to be out after ten in the evening. If someone was not home before curfew, he would be beaten. Sometimes they would take the whole family to prison.
The Syrian government took all his father’s money from the bank after the war, and the collection of credit by Jews was forbidden.
The Jewish money from the US that supported the Jewish schools in Syria is now going to Muslim teachers, who teach the Koran in every class. There are also children planted by the secret police in every class to inform on families that listen to radio programs or other forms of communication that are forbidden.
Moshe, a young Syrian escaped to Israel without any money using a forged Albanian identity card, leaving his family behind. He described some of the reasons for his escape.
The students in the Jewish school Moshe attended in Syria were mostly Muslim. In addition to the Muslim boys throwing stones at him, the information he received at school asserted that Jews are evil murderers and barbarians whose God preached that they must drink the blood of non-Jews.
When journalists came from Europe and the US to visit the Jewish community in Syria, the police told them what to say if they did not want serious retribution.
Bottom line: Needless to say, none of those Jews interviewed showed any interest in returning to their place of birth in Arab lands, after the treatment they have received there by the authorities and the Arab population. Invitation Declined.